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North Shore shipyard charts a new course
Next to an old black-and-white sign warning visitors that the works yard at Allied Shipbuilders is “another premises protected by Vancouver Security’s K-9 unit,” is a smaller, more subtle notice that hard hats are a requirement for all who wish to go beyond the confines of the company’s office.
A few steps to the left of those reminders, and through Allied’s tiny, wood-panelled foyer, a collection of visitor-reserved hard hats rest on a wall. They’re all yellow, so those guests hoping to colour coordinate have little to work with. But that doesn’t stop Malcolm McLaren, former president of Allied Shipbuilders, from saying, “choose any colour you’d like,” and cracking a half-smile.
It’s a practised joke, the kind of thing that comes from decades of ushering visitors through the shipyard. And Malcolm delivers it with ease, although the opportunities to use the line likely don’t pop up like they used to.
Malcolm suffers from Parkinson’s disease and, along with his older brother Jim, has sold his stake in the company to longtime colleague and vice-president of operations Chuck Ko. Only the youngest brother, Douglas, remains part of the fold. The decision to walk away, admits Malcolm, was made for him. If he wasn’t sick, he’d still be there and the McLaren family, as they have for more than six decades, would still have majority ownership of Allied.
“I’m still hanging around but only for an hour today and I’m three weeks out,” says Malcolm, plainly.
“It’s important not to be around and meddle. You have to make a break. The people behind you, it’s their game now.”
Meddling, of course, doesn’t preclude reminiscing and Allied’s office provides plenty of fodder for looking back. In a medium-sized boardroom — another wood-panelled space — a framed photo of Malcolm’s grandfather, W.D. McLaren, hangs on a wall. It was W.D. that brought the McLaren family to this province in the late ‘20s, after his shipbuilding firm in Scotland, the Coaster Construction Company, closed its doors.
The company had built a handful of vessels for service in B.C. and W.D. decided, like any good businessman would, to follow the work. A faded design of one of those Scottish-built, B.C.-bound vessels, the Lady Alexandra, sits proudly on another wall in the Allied offices.
Unfortunately, W.D. didn’t read the tea leaves quite right and times were, at first, tough for the family. The Great Depression meant little work and the consulting gig he had going didn’t yield many returns. The Second World War, however, quickly turned the tables and W.D. found himself the general manager of Vancouver’s West Coast Shipbuilders, a company that built more than 50 vessels for the war. Arthur McLaren, W.D.’s eldest son and Malcolm’s father, joined the team in 1941. He’d work with company until it closed seven years later.
From the ashes of West Coast Shipbuilders, Arthur opened Allied Builders on a small piece of his old firm’s False Creek property. It was a gamble, but the small operation quickly grew, turning out steel tugs and barges. In 1967, the company changed its name once more, settling on its current moniker.
That same year, Allied outgrew its Vancouver plot and relocated to a larger piece of real estate in North Vancouver — the same address, 1870 Harbour Rd., it holds today — and began taking larger contracts. For the next 18 years, the yard was hopping. At any one time, five vessels were on the go at Allied.
The mid-1980s, however, ushered in a slow period for shipbuilding. Crude oil prices bottomed out and, as a result, the government lost interest in exploring the Arctic for oil. The ships needed to do so, naturally, were no longer a priority. The de-industrialization of the coast didn’t help matters either. Pulp mills and mines stopped expanding and the demand for fuel barges disappeared.
To stay afloat, Allied rebranded itself as a repair yard. Ships always need to be fixed and that consistent stream of work has allowed the company to continue pursuing design-and-build contracts to this day. Many former North Van shipyards can’t say the same.
“We’re like dentists, we live off other people’s misery,” says Malcolm, with a laugh, motioning towards a fishing trawler currently at Allied receiving a new motor.
“This guy would love his engine to keep going but he’s got no pressure.”
For a guy who professes to spend little time at the shipyard these days, Malcolm still commands respect from the staff he passes on the yard. From the boys replacing the rusty bits on a 30-year-old Seaspan tug, to the fellas crafting parts in the machine shop, those who toil at Allied all give a nod. And each time Malcolm smiles back, a gesture to the folks who’ve grown not just with the company, but with the family.
Staff, he stresses, is one of the keys to staying in this business. It takes decades to grow the core group of workers needed to do the job right. The only trick, of course, is making sure you’ve got work for them.
“We’ve always had a low turnover of key people,” says Malcolm, shortly before he nods at a coverall-wearing guy named Bill, an Allied employee of 30 years. “I’ve known people here longer than I’ve been married.”
The firm’s change in ownership, health concerns notwithstanding, comes at an interesting time for shipbuilding on the North Shore. Seaspan being awarded the oft-discussed $8-billion federal shipbuilding contract likely means more work for all shipbuilders in the area.
Malcolm, however, remains cautious about betting on the possible spillover effects the contract may have. For a boom-and-bust business, work is work and that’s never a bad thing. But the job is, after all, Seaspan’s.
“It’s positive and, hopefully, others should be able to get a lift. The alternative of not having it isn’t good,” he says.
“People talk about shipbuilding, but it’s all the associated jobs. So much makes it run. Since the ‘60s there’s been a strong community of marine manufacturers. Shipbuilders take the parts they make, integrate them and get the ships to run properly. Hopefully, if they’re [Seaspan] using local marine suppliers that will keep them active if we need them.”
Considering Malcom’s current schedule, when and if that homegrown supply sector — which includes, amongst others, the manufacturers of vents, rescue boats and alarm systems — sees a boost, he’ll likely have to watch from the sidelines.
But a longtime front-row seat has left him with more than a few memories. And he’d pack some more in if he could, to be sure. But, like he says, he doesn’t want to meddle.
“It’s an amazing business. We’ve built vessels, repaired vessels — fishing vessels that have gone all over the coast, vessels for Interior lakes and tug boats that pull all different types of cargo,” says Malcolm.
“I could go on and on.”